Councils across the Waikato are demanding more information from Government before making a decision on its proposed Three Waters Reform.
While some councils have so far taken a mild approach towards the reform, the voices of others raising major concerns are getting louder. Waikato District mayor Allan Sanson says he fears that the Government would answer the concerns from councils with mandatory control.
"The Government seems pretty determined... We have been served up a bitter entrée, now we are interested in what the main course looks like."
The Three Waters Reform Programme is a major intergenerational project, aiming to ensure that New Zealand's drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure and services are affordable and fit for purpose and no council is worse off.
To achieve that, the Government has announced a $2.5 billion package supporting local government transition through the reforms and proposes establishing four new multi-regional entities to look after the three water assets of all New Zealand local councils.
All 67 councils across New Zealand are currently in an eight-week review period ending on October 1, to understand local effects of the proposals, evaluate the data and provide feedback to Government.
Most Waikato councils are so far undetermined about the proposals saying that they want what is best for their region, but would need more information before making a final decision.
Sanson says he thinks the water reform needs to happen in some form or another, but the current proposals were "a bit of a hit and miss".
"It's fair to say we are pro reform, but our council probably won't support what is on the table now.
"Not a day goes by where I don't receive emails from concerned residents saying 'Don't you hand over our assets'... Some of these emails are quite threatening [and] people tell me what they would do if I did agree to the reform. The problem is that the assets would be taken away from me, too."
He says he is not sure whether the Three Waters Reform will be good for the whole country as the Government promises and is on board with councils demanding more information.
"It needs to be worked through... We just don't know enough yet... We still can't establish whether [under the proposed model] we will be stakeholders, owners or what else. And who owns water? These are the things we can't get answers to... It's a high risk [with this model] that if it's wrong, it will be wrong for decades."
Waikato District Council, like other councils, hasn't consulted the public about its views on the reform. Sanson says: "We didn't know what to consult about. There is nothing but hot talk and a few reports."
Hamilton still has many questions it wants answered
Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate says: "I personally believe there is a strong economic case for reform, but we need all the facts before we can properly discuss a final proposal with our communities. We're not there yet, we all have a lot of questions as do people in the community.
"[It's] the Government's reform – not ours. So we need Government to lay out the rationale for their proposal in a way our communities can understand and provide their views on."
From the Government's funding package, Hamilton would receive $58.6 million.
On September 30 Hamilton City Council will consider its feedback and recommended improvements to Government's proposals. Southgate says the meeting won't be about opting in or opting out of the reform process.
"The meeting is simply about providing feedback to government on their initial proposal, that's all.
"Water services make up about one third of our rates each year and a lot of our city's debt. In coming years, Hamilton will need to invest millions of dollars more to maintain our pipes and reservoirs, support a growing city and keep delivering safe, high-quality water. And those costs aren't going away irrespective of how water services may be managed in the future."
The council's current official statement is that it supports the Government's goals of ensuring safe, sustainable, and economically efficient delivery of three waters services but notes effective transition to any new structure must be in full and equitable partnership with local government.
Southgate says: "We have also been very clear that Government's proposals need a lot of work. In particular, we're concerned at how we and people in our city will have a voice."
Hamilton City deputy mayor Geoff Taylor and councillors Mark Bunting and Ewan Wilson are not in favour of the reform and demand Hamilton City Council to take a clear position.
Bunting says: "We are worried that our feedback to Government doesn't reflect the community's view. Every feedback from the community that we have received so far is negative. We have been elected to serve the community and not push a Government agenda on them. We try to keep an open mind to [the reform] ... [and] want to work with Government, but not for them."
He says that some people might argue that it is too early to say no. "I can see the [Government's] intent and I agree with that, but I don't think [how the reform is proposed] will do it."
Bunting says the model with the four entities is very bureaucratic, too complicated and not transparent enough. According to the proposal, Hamilton City Council would be one of 22 councils belonging to entity B.
"Within this entity we would have to elect a board where only six seats will be dedicated to councils. This board appoints an appointment panel which is appointing a professional board to manage the water assets. We are worried that this will lead to our communities having water metres installed and receiving water bills. And we don't get to have a say.
"We feel strongly that this deal will be bad for Hamilton. We need to be stronger than the position we are taking."
Hamilton East MP Jamie Strange says while Hamilton has a great record in managing its water, other communities across New Zealand have not. "By moving from 67 different water service operators to four regional entities the reforms ... will spread the cost longer and more widely..."
He says he is aware of comments that the reform will take water assets out of council hands. "This is untrue. Under the reform council will collectively own the Water Service Entity providing for their district on behalf of their communities. This ensures that communities retain an influence on their assets and services."
Strange says he has also heard feedback around the lack of public consultation with local communities.
"The Three Waters reform has been a long process which builds on engagement with local Government, Iwi/Maaori and water industry experts. Engagement is expected to continue until at least July 2024 with plenty of opportunities for local councils to have their say and right now councils are not expected to make any formal decisions regarding the reform."
Coromandel positively engaged in feedback process
Thames-Coromandel District Council says it is positively working on feedback to Government, but its objective is to ensure any local decisions that are required are made in the communities best interests.
To ensure that, they will request more time to understand in detail the potential impact of the reform.
Mayor Sandra Goudie says: "We want to send a clear message that we are positively and constructively engaged in the feedback process to help improve the proposals.
"[They] are a once-in-a-generation decision for councils and communities, so it is crucial that communities are provided with enough time to engage meaningfully and genuinely with the process."
Current model not suitable for Hauraki District
Hauraki District Council is taking a similar position to its neighbour Thames-Coromandel District Council, saying it is too early to make any kind of decision yet, however, they will always advocate for the best wellbeing outcomes for their communities.
Hauraki District Mayor Toby Adams says: "Councils and others have been saying for years that the current model is not sustainable or affordable for many of our communities.
"This year our council made an assumption in our Long Term Plan that the Government would pay half the bill for upgrading our wastewater treatment plants to meet its new environmental standards, simply because we know it's unaffordable for our communities to pay for it."
While assessing the proposals, the council says it needs to take its time before making any big decisions as the Three Waters Reform would be the most complex change in local government for 30 years.
Waipā wants more evidence
Like Thames-Coromandel, Waipā wants more information before deciding on whether or not it supports the government's water reforms, but Mayor Jim Mylchreest raises his concerns.
"I don't want to be altogether negative because I'm simply wanting more evidence. But I do have concerns that won't be allayed until I have more information around issues like the transfer of Waipā assets and the retention of a local voice for the people of our district."
He says he understands that local government needs to do what is best for the whole country, but in his opinion, most councils, including Waipā, have done "a pretty good job" with water so far.
"Waipā ratepayers are relying on us to look out for their best interests. We need to do that and that's what our focus should be going forward. I'm not entirely convinced yet the reforms will deliver what is being promised. But they are happening, like it or not.
"So we need to get on with it and make these changes work for us and our district."
South Waikato District Council has concerns
South Waikato District Council takes a stronger position against the reform fearing that an opt out option is not on the table.
However, like Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate, South Waikato District Mayor Jenny Shattock agrees that everyone in New Zealand should have access to clean, safe drinking water and a healthy environment.
"I am also of the view that ... South Waikato [District Council is] already delivering this. South Waikato's urban communities have good three waters infrastructure, particularly in the water supply and wastewater area. Speaking specifically for the South Waikato, I reflect on the age old expression, if it's not broken, don't fix it."
The council already committed additional funding to water infrastructure improvements over the coming years that is reflected in the previous and current Long-Term-Plan.
Shattock says: "I have questions and concerns about the reforms, primarily around the lack of certainty now and throughout this process. This uncertainty raises suspicion. I am growing increasingly fearful that an opt out option is not actually on the table; and to be frank, perhaps never was."
Matamata-Piako doesn't have faith in entities
Matamata Piako District Council is particularly raising concerns about the proposed governance model which would give Councils very little influence over the entity. Mayor Ash Tanner says: "We have serious doubts that a large regional entity would work alongside the likes of Ingham, Greenleas, Fonterra or Silver Fern Farms."
The proposed ownership of the water assets in its current form is also unacceptable to Matamata-Piako councillors.
"Sure, the proposal says we'll still technically own the water assets but without the ability to influence, without the ability to hold the board to account, we have no teeth. What good is owning an asset if you have no say over how it is managed?," Tanner says.
The council is also concerned about timeframes, including the ones imposed on councils , saying they believe they are unrealistic.
"They're too tight... We don't have faith in the new entities – or anyone in fact – achieving what the Government says they will within the timeframes provided.
"It's [also] unreasonable for Government to expect Councils to consider the implications and detail of these reforms at once. They're talking about major decisions, and that's not something we think should be rushed."
Tanner says Matamata-Piako District Council needs to be able to promote the best outcomes for our community, "but we don't have any confidence our concerns will be heard."
Waitomo currently well positioned for future
Waitomo District Council says, they have invested heavily in their water management and infrastructure on behalf of, and for the benefit of, their community and the environment which is why they feel they are well positioned for the future.
Waitomo Mayor John Robertson says he welcomes the Government's assurance no community would be worse off financially, but joins other mayors in the Waikato in wanting further information.
"We need more information around issues such as the transfer of three water infrastructure assets and what that will look like, cross-subsidisation, how will customers be billed, will water meters be introduced to areas that don't have them. The list goes on.
"It's hard to support a concept or proposal when you're being drip-fed information and there's still so much we don't know – information our community deserves to know."
From the Government's funding package, $14 million have been allocated to Waitomo.
Robertson says council will take its time to look at the financial package being offered. "The incentive package is not a given. The $14 million come with conditions, and more detail is needed. We also need to understand this impact alongside the Future of Local Government reform."